Elated Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill hailed his history-making players after a 3-1 victory over Greece last night sealed their passage to the Euro 2016 finals – the nation’s first appearance at a major tournament in 30 years.
A goal in each half from skipper Steven Davis and a strike early in the second period from Kilmarnock striker Josh Magennis rendered a late consolation from AEK Athens forward Christos Aravidis a mere consolation.
Northern Ireland have endured 14 unsuccessful qualifying campaigns since Billy Bingham’s side reached the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, while the modern day vintage require a point against Finland in Helsinki on Sunday to be crowned Group F winners.
“The players were outstanding. Right through the team, magnificent. It’s a privilege to be here, I’m proud to stand here as their manager,” said O’Neill, whose side were without suspended frontman Kyle Lafferty last night, who has seven goals in qualifying.
“How have we done it? I’m not really sure. The players deserve the ultimate credit. We have confidence and belief which comes from winning games. This shows the potential of this team and of football in Northern Ireland.”
There was no such joy for Scotland, whose hopes of reaching next summer’s European Championships in France were dashed by a last-gasp leveller from striker Robert Lewandowski as Poland salvaged a 2-2 at Hampden Park.
Scotland surged into the lead through strikes from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher after Lewandowski’s early opener, but the draw coupled with results elsewhere meant Gordon Strachan’s side are consigned to fourth place Group D.
A draw would have kept the Scots' dream alive had Republic of Ireland lost at home to world champions Germany. As it was, substitute Shane Long’s classy finish in a 1-0 win left automatic qualification for the final in their own hands.
Victory for Ireland against Poland in Warsaw on Sunday would seal automatic qualification, while defeat would mean a play-off. Germany top Group D with 19 points, with Poland and Ireland trailing by a point.